Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Book and A Movie

April 26th marked the 101st death anniversary of one of 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan. By coincidence, I was finishing ‘The Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt at just about this time. And then went on to watch ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’.

When it comes to the book, even with its various digressions, the mystic mathematical genius of Ramanujan comes through. The trials and tribulations of lower-middle class lad from the deep South of India, steeped in religious tradition, totally unprepared for the England of the 1910s, are heart-rending. The mathematical genius is an uncomfortable social being–moody, vulnerable, lonely, awkward, under-confident. Never mind food for the heart and soul in terms of companionship and friendship, he does not have enough food to keep in good health. First his strict vegetarian regime and various taboos make it imperative to cook for himself. But more seriously, as the First World War breaks out, he does not even get basic rations, vegetables and fruits. This, coupled with the cold, had lasting impacts on his health, which not only led to serious bouts of illness and hospital stays, but his tragically untimely death at the age of 32.

Away from anything familiar, longing for his wife, and with only a few Indian friends, how lonely life must have been!

But whatever the body, the heart and the soul missed, the mind just went on! And in Prof Hardy who was instrumental in bringing him to Cambridge, England, he had an intellectual companion, albeit they did not always agree on ‘ways and means’. Ramanujan’s refusal to provide systematic proof for his intuitive mathematical assertions led to many an argument. His insistence that his mathematical claims and insights were written on his tongue by the Goddess Namagiri irritated and baffled Hardy.

Ramanujan’s legacy was in the form of 37 published papers, as well as three notebooks and a ‘lost’ notebook (discovered only in 1976) with approximately 4,000 mathematical claims, most without proofs. Almost all of these have now been proved, in the century and more after his death. They continue to inspire modern-day mathematics and expand its boundaries.

I got a sense of all this from the book.

Coming to the movie, starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, I found it sadly unsatisfying. To begin with, I could not reconcile the tall, debonair and poised Patel with my image of the short, stout, badly dressed and awkward Ramanujan. However good the actor, there have to be some physical similarities. It cannot be that the first Indian at hand is cast in a movie with an Indian protagonist. Ben Kingsley’s looks were as important as his acting, in bringing the Mahatma to life.

And then, small trivial details about life and mores in Tamilnadu of a century ago. Just a little fact-checking could have made it so much better.

Though both are for a general audience and cannot by definition get into too much math, of course a book can deal a little better with math than a movie can. So there is that too.

Both play up the ‘saas-bahu’ drama between Ramanujan’s mother and wife to the hilt, the movie a little more sympathetic to the MIL than the book.

All in all, worth it for anyone to spend some time on. It will surely awaken a sense of wonder about the unimaginable achievements of a short life—not only blazing paths that no Indian had trod, but impacting the course of mathematics for times to come. And give a sense of genius which is beyond rational explanation.

‘Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigal, is a more serious, and hence somewhat heavier read. There is also a movie titled ‘Ramanujan’, which I have yet to see.

–Meena